The Public Accounts Committee needs to know its limits on the penalty points saga

Expenditure oversight body only muddying the water in an already murky debacle

 Commissioner Martin Callinan: attended the PAC with a delegation of senior officers for a five-hour grilling on the penalty points issue last week.  Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Commissioner Martin Callinan: attended the PAC with a delegation of senior officers for a five-hour grilling on the penalty points issue last week. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Mon, Jan 27, 2014, 06:51

The Public Accounts Committee has been very active of late. Four weeks into the New Year it has tackled the Central Remedial Clinic’s funding, Rehab, expenditure at Irish Water, top-ups on HSE-approved salaries across the health system and allegations of Garda corruption concerning penalty points.

Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan was in with a delegation of senior officers for a five-hour grilling on the penalty points issue last week.

The central allegation is that members of the Garda have been abusing their discretion to terminate penalty points incurred by speeding motorists.

The matter has been raised by two whistleblowers; a retired Garda member and a man still serving as a Garda sergeant.

Committee chairman John McGuinness told Commissioner Callinan that the committee had decided to extend an invitation to the serving Garda sergeant to appear before it this Thursday.

Commissioner Callinan voiced his opposition, saying the committee was not the appropriate forum for hearing criminal allegations from a serving member about his colleagues.

He has since sought legal advice from the Attorney General on the possibility of having the hearing blocked, most likely via High Court injunction.We have been here before of course.

In 2001 the High Court - in a ruling later upheld by the Supreme Court - found that an Oireachtas inquiry did not have the authority to examine the shooting dead by gardaí of John Carthy in Abbeylara. It concluded such inquiries did not have the power to make findings adverse to the good name or reputation of citizens.

More recently, in 2011 the former senator and TD Ivor Callely won a Supreme Court challenge to a Seanad Committee investigation into his expenses. It had acted outside its powers and had not granted Mr Callely the right to defend himself. And just over two years ago a referendum aimed at strengthening the scope of Oireachtas inquiries was defeated.

In recent days Clare Daly TD, who has made much of the running on the penalty points issue, expressed her concern that the committee members were simply not knowledgeable enough to get to the truth.

Commissioner Callinan has pointed out time and again that the documents supplied by the whistleblowers to PAC offer only a snapshot of penalty points cases. The paperwork does not include, for example, any correspondence sent to the Garda by motorists outlining the arguments for having their points terminated.

It means only those with full access to Pulse will be in a position to review the decision making in each case and so properly investigate the penalty points claims. There are only two bodies who enjoy that privilege, namely the Garda and the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission.

The Ombudsman can only access Pulse under the supervision of the Garda. Former ombudsman commissioner Conor Brady said yesterday the lack of unfettered access to the system was hampering its work.

The Garda force has already carried out its own investigations into some 189 allegations involving 2,198 cases of penalty points being cancelled.

It was a mistake for Minister for Justice Alan Shatter to decide the Garda investigate itself on this issue – and this is now being unfairly used as a stick to beat the force.

The Garda Ombudsman should have stepped in last year, or been requested to act by Mr Shatter, and reviewed an initial sample of several hundred of the cases subsequently investigated by the Garda.

If the results suggested widespread abuse of discretion, all of the cases should have been investigated. If not, an independent body would have been seen to give the Garda a clean bill of health.

Before members of the committee get too indignant about some gardaí being perhaps too flaithulach in cancelling penalty points, they should remember that most public representatives run clinics to help constituents secure their entitlements a little faster than everyone else. Many do those favours, or at least there is the appearance they do them, for the purposes of securing votes at election time. It is a quid pro quo enshrined in our clientelist political system that most public representatives are only delighted to work.

Some of them also lobby to get people they know appointed to jobs, up to and including judicial posts. Some lobby for prisoners to be released – even those in jail for sex offences.

Just last week Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Eamon Gilmore said he hoped for the early release from a prison sentence imposed by an independent judiciary on 79-year-old peace activist Margaretta D’Arcy. She has been jailed for failing to give a guarantee in relation to a protest at Shannon Airport. Mr Gilmore explained Ms D’Arcy was ill. It was supplementary information that gave his comments vital context. But, incidentally, that information would not be contained on the jailed woman’s Pulse record.

Many public representatives are guilty of partaking in a much worse favours culture than that being suggested to exist in the Garda, against whom no charge of quid pro quo has been levelled on the penalty points issue.

This could make it difficult for public representatives to be investigating the Garda on this issue.

What is the role of the Garda Ombudsman on the matter? Should it not be involved in a more significant way in relation to this issue?

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